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My Journey Through Autism

A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

It's probably impossible to write what a person is. Shakespeare did it in bits; character studies of specific traits, indecision-Hamlet; getting old and losing a grip-King Lear, but no one character fully recreates all the complexities a single human being embraces. So, what's a memoirist to do who isn't like other people to begin with? SONGS OF THE GORILLA NATION: My Journey Through Autism; Harmony Books, 2004, is both an enlightening and unyieldingly opaque look at an enigmatic disorder.

Dawn Prince-Hughes was thirty-six and on her way to a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary anthropology before she was officially diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, the high-functioning form of autism. Autism is considered a mystery, no one knows the why and how of it. Mark Haddon presents a fictional Asperger's character in, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, but his portrait made me nervous with its textbook list of symptoms and tics. Donna Williams in her memoir, NOBODY, NOWHERE, records her harrowing interior experience as an autistic inventing fake personalities for herself in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get along with others. Dawn Prince-Hughes tells us gorillas taught her how to function among "normals".

Other Book Reviews:

The Gangster We Are All Looking For
Lê Thi Diem Thúy
The Boy's Crusade
- Paul Fussell

Project X
- Jim Shepard

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Mark Haddon

A Company of Three
- Varley O'Connor
Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

The lights went on at the Seattle zoo, awakening Prince-Hughes from the confused darkness that had been her life. She'd been hired as a helper and during a minor emergency was asked to take over feeding strawberries to Congo, a five hundred pound male gorilla. She is shown precisely how to place each berry between the bars of his cage, careful to stay one step ahead of the beast's huge hand. This was heaven to an autistic: placing objects at regular intervals in an orderly fashion; perfect, but she was so concentrating on the correct order that she forgot the purpose was to stay out of Congo's way, when, suddenly, their fingers met, his leathery and big, hers small and already dreading any contact at all, never mind with a giant ape. But something happened in that touch and Congo seemed to be aware of it too. They lingered, and Prince-Hughes finally, fully took in another living being. "We stared at each other, our fingers still together. I relaxed into his touch and his nearness. This is what it is, I thought. This is what it means to love and be loved. This is what it is to touch and look at another person and feel its meaning. This is what it is to not be alone in the vastness of the space we hurtle through among the coldness and the dying. This is what it is to live." With Congo's touch, she was able to, "[find] a way to go home through the glass-the glass of my reality as an autistic person..." Except in fleeting glimpses, as on a walk through the woods with her mother when she was a child, or with an uncle she adored who was careful not to look directly at her, the 'glass' had kept her apart. Gorillas, she understood, do not look directly either, or not for long, using instead a sideways, indirect glance to take in the world and each other. I know it seems irreverent, but I kept thinking of De Niro's Travis Bickle looking at himself in the mirror, asking, "Are you talking to me?"

Anyway, this is a tantalizing break into the isolation of autism, but the book slipped into a dry observation of zoo-dwelling gorilla society. In fact, it splits into twin concerns: the fate of autistics and the fate of gorillas as an endangered "nation". I wanted to stay with the gorilla. What about that touch? What about Congo made her feel safe, simpatico, at one? What was different about his touch that she had not felt before?

Dawn-Hughes makes clear that she is writing from her own unique perspective as an autistic, that the patterns scientists would like to neatly package are not so tidy and predictable when an autistic tells the tale. It needs reminding that Dawn Prince-Hughes is high-functioning. Even at her lowest moments, and there were years of low moments, she managed not to be institutionalized, was educable and able to survive on her own. She dropped out of school at sixteen, damaged not only by being severely misunderstood, and treated cruelly, but also by being clueless herself why she could not get along. To make matters harder, she was a lesbian, a thing to be jeered at in her Montana school. It's not that she was particularly sexual; mostly she was less uncomfortable among woman. Again, typically, she did not like to be touched, to make eye contact, or know how to emotionally connect. She spent a few years on the streets, taken in occasionally by friendly strangers, wandering her way to Seattle. For a while she was considered punk and cool, until anyone tried to have a real conversation with her. She was a natural dancer and was brought into the club scene where her penchant for leather was read as an S&M green light, and plenty of hard core types took her home for a confusing night of anything but love. A source of income opened when a friend suggested she dance at a strip club. Right off the top I had trouble imagining an autistic girl stripping, but, here again, the visceral how is missing from that part of the story.

Dawn-Hughes also wants the reader to know autistics are not emotionless automatons. I found the emotional examples she gave pretty mundane and I was more intrigued by her view of autism from an anthropological point of view. "Much like the deaf community, we autistics are building an emergent culture." Order and "ritualistic habits" are a means of making sense out of the chaos of constant sensory stimulation on autistics who lack the necessary processing 'filters': "Swimming through the din of the fractured and the unexpected, one feels as if one were drowning in an ocean without predictability, without markers, without a shore. It is like being blinded in the brightness of a keener sight. Autistic people will instinctively reach for order and symmetry." That ordering can come in the form of rocking, flapping, arranging stones, pencils, matchsticks, even dust. She edits a journal, Aquamarine Blue 5: Personal Stories of College Students with Autism, pointing out that autistics often put into private writings what they cannot express verbally or share with others.

Autism is on the rise, being diagnosed at an alarming rate. Separating Asperger's from lower-functioning autism, the writer explains there is no clinical delay in language development, or cognitive development, but it's more difficult to diagnose Asperger's, and diagnosis is often not made until well into adulthood, if at all. Plus, Asperger's patients have the double whammy of appearing normal. It's the blurting out, the perseverative behavior, and the inability to read another person's emotional and social cues that are the tip-off that something is wrong, behaviors largely viewed as both obnoxious and stupid, and also as something the person can help. The advantage of a diagnosis is that it can be offered as an explanation and become a path toward understanding differences, though this not much help if a person has trouble recognizing familiar faces. Dawn Prince-Hughes, though, is not necessarily interested in eliminating the differences between autistics and normals. She comes across as very proud, and why not? She has a large ego to go with her considerable accomplishments and she means to teach the world a thing or two. Now that she functions better, she has begun to see advantages to her "culture", to her way of viewing the world, a view that was largely shaped the day she and Congo touched.

Gorillas are referred to as persons, as having a heritage, as forming a cultural nation: "[The gorillas] looked at everything. They were so subtle and steady that I felt like I was watching people for the first time in my whole life, really watching them, free from acting, free from the oppression that comes with brash and bold sound, the blinding stares and uncomfortable closeness that mark the talk of human people. In contrast, these captive people spoke softly, their bodies poetic, their faces and dance poetic, spinning conversations out of the moisture and perfume, out of the ground and out of the past. They were like me." I was beginning to understand. This moisture and perfume are not readily available in Paris or New York or Tokyo, or the suburban mall. At the zoo she was able to breathe again, to remember her childhood affinity for nature, the order and rhythms she'd found in the woods near her home; after years of chaos something in the world was beginning to make sense.

Like many autistics, the writer suffers from asthma and allergies, finds most foods unappealing, choosing them more for color than taste, and she is mostly unaware of hunger or thirst, which can lead to dehydration. But she drives a car, teaches, writes and is raising a son with her partner. She has theories: Allergies are the body believing it is being invaded. True, but Prince-Hughes thinks the body's perception of harmless substances as an enemy is tied to a world that has become over-stimulated, removed from the natural order, confused and less able to cope. She goes further, suggesting that cultures are antithetical impositions on people, leading to illnesses, mental, social and physical. If autism is a brain-mapping problem, a physical disruption in the ability to process stimulation (sensory and social) why is it on the increase and why is it a modern disorder? Autism was only 'discovered' in the early twentieth century, and Asperger named its high functioning cousin in 1944. Dawn Prince-Hughes suggests that with gorillas, social and cultural impositions are simpler, easier to grasp. The idea being we are becoming dangerously out of whack with ourselves, each other and what's left of a natural order. It's an interesting theory.

A funny example of the oddness of normals that made sense to me is clowns. Faces are already over the top to an autistic, so how to make sense of the garish get up of a clown? Prince-Hughes finds them terrifying to the point of fight or flight. "As far as I can tell, it is unprecedented in nature to peacefully allow something that bright and colorful to come at you." Maybe clowns are a symptom. I've been afraid of them since the first circus I went to as a kid. Shakespeare uses clowns to say things his sophisticated (normal?) characters can't. Interesting. And gorillas? A trip to the zoo is definitely in order.

©June 2004 J. Stefan-Cole

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